Monday, August 15, 2011

Second Person

The second-person form brings ‘you’ into the writing. You have probably read instruction manuals that are written using this form: “Before you begin, you will need: a sharp pencil; a square piece of paper; and three tadpoles.” The second-person form can also be used to much effect in fiction.

When you read something that has been written in the first-person form, it may feel as if the author is saying that their experience is unique: “I loved her”; while in the third-person form it may feel as if the author is somehow above the emotion which they are describing: “She loved him.” By writing in the second-person form, the author is taking a leap of faith, hoping that you will feel or see as they do: “You love.”

Here’s an example of second-person narrative taken from the fifth chapter of ‘Adam Bede’ by George Eliot:

“See them in the bright sunlight, interrupted every now and then by rolling masses of cloud, ascending the slope from the Broxton side, where the tall gables and elms of the rectory predominate over the tiny whitewashed church.”

Eliot employs the second-person form throughout this novel. She is encouraging the reader to be more than a passive bystander. She is inviting you to step into the book and become one of the characters. She is asking you to look more closely at the world she is creating for you; to look beyond her words and trust your own imagination.

When the second-person form is used in poetry or lyrics, the poet or lyricist is trying to draw you into a different world; a world beyond mere experience; a world of emotions; emotions that most human beings share.

In ‘Fields of Gold,’ Sting sings to us in the second-person: “You’ll remember me, when the west wind moves, upon the fields of barley…” Sting then uses the first and third-person forms to create lyrics with a unique and timeless feeling.

Feist’s song, ‘The Park’, is written in the second-person form.

Why would he come, back through the park
You thought that you saw him, but no, you did not
It's not him who comes, across the sea to surprise you
Not him who would know where in London to find you.


You wonder, as you listen to Feist sing these words, if you are overhearing her berate herself in private; berating herself for having hoped. Or is she singing this song just for you: the wounded reaching out to the wounded?

And, as you listen to these words, you decide that it is high time that the second-person form was taken back from instruction manual writers: it is time for a second-person renaissance.

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